Yuko Suda is a farmer. A farmer who can’t afford a farm.
Instead, she rents her land, an increasingly common practice for new farmers across B.C. — one she worries won’t be sustainable. It’s an issue facing most young farmers in the province, and it threatens both their livelihoods and Canadians’ long-term access to food.
“There just isn’t accessible land for young farmers,” explained Suda who co-owns Brave Child Farm, a specialty Asian vegetable farm in Surrey.
It’s something she’s experienced firsthand.
Farmland in the Vancouver area costs between $150,000 to $350,000 per acre. That’s more than Suda and her partner — who both have off-farm jobs as well — can afford.
Nor can most farmers; a 2016 report found that farmers in B.C.’s Lower Mainland would need to increase their prices by up to 70 per cent if they had to pay off mortgages on agricultural land.
Suda had two options. She could buy a farm outside the Vancouver area, taking her a long way from her market in the city and jeopardizing her off-season job as a civil engineer, or she could stay in the city and rent land.
She’s not alone. Almost a third of active farmland in the Vancouver area is leased, and it’s an approach the provincial government has encouraged as it tries to increase the number of young farmers in the province.
Farmland in the Vancouver area costs between $150,000 to $350,000 per acre. That's more than most B.C. farmers can afford. Most would need to increase their prices by up to 70 per cent if they had to pay off mortgages on agricultural land.
Between 2011 and 2016, the average B.C. farmer was 56 years old, and about 3,000 farmers stopped farming. They haven’t been replaced: only nine per cent of the province’s farmers are under 35, a demographic trend that concerns the provincial government and food security advocates alike.
As farmland prices rise, they limit the pool of potential buyers to corporations and wealthy individuals. Endowed with economies of scale, these landowners maximize their profits by farming industrially—an agricultural model that relies on pesticides, fossil fuels, monoculture, and migrant labour to sell primarily to international markets.
In contrast, small farmers like Suda grow several crops on their land in a season, producing more food and money per acre than industrial farms, and with minimal environmental impacts. They also better serve local markets and directly reinvest their profits into the B.C. economy.
Close to 70 per cent of the vegetables consumed in B.C. come from large farms in Mexico or California, two regions where agricultural production is anticipated to decline due to climate change and water scarcity.
And COVID-19 has made the issue more pressing: California’s Central Valley — the epicenter of North America’s industrial vegetable production, and a key supplier to B.C. — has been hit hard by the pandemic. With limited safety measures in place, hundreds of workers have been infected, slowing harvests and exposing future weak links in the province’s food supply.
It’s a dependence the provincial NDP government pledged to change when it came to power in 2017.
Since then, the province has sought to increase the amount of local food consumed by British Columbians, and grow a population of young farmers to supply them, particularly in the expensive and densely populated southern parts of the province, according to Lana Popham, provincial minister of agriculture.
That goal led the province to partner with Young Agrarians, a B.C.-based non-profit, to run a matchmaking program that links prospective farmers with farmland owners, and supports them as they negotiate a land-sharing agreement.
Since the partnership was established in 2016, it has matched 81 farmers with 1,884 hectares of land, mostly in the Fraser and Okanagan valleys.
“It’s like a dating service for land,” explained Darcy Smith, program manager with Young Agrarians. The program was modelled off previous successful initiatives in Québec and on Vancouver Island.
“We’ll make introductions between farmers and landowners and if there’s a spark, and they like each other and all needs are met, we support the development of a land-sharing agreement.”
That agreement is usually a licence or a lease, she explained, similar to the one Suda relies on to farm.
Each agreement is unique, with some lasting only a year, while others grant access to land for anywhere between five and 25 years. If the relationship falls through, Smith said the program will try to help the farmer find a new and better-suited plot of land.
Still, the system isn’t perfect.
“Owning the farm is by far the best,” Suda said. “The limitations of leasing is you can’t put any infrastructure into it, because your lease is not guaranteed.”
Leasing limits large infrastructure investments such as greenhouses and irrigation systems that many farmers, especially produce farmers, use to increase their farm’s long-term viability and food-producing capacity. Leasing also impacts which crops farmers decide to plant.
“We’d like to, for example, put in more perennial crops, from fruit trees to things like asparagus, but those are things we can’t put in because our land lease is not secure,” Suda said.
Beyond investments in infrastructure that often take decades to pay off, farmers’ livelihoods depend on maintaining rich, healthy soils, built up over decades.
“It takes a lifetime to build a farm. It’s not like building a factory — you need to commit to the land,” said Kent Mullinix, director of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Securing that longevity under the province’s current agricultural land policy is almost impossible, he said.
About five per cent of B.C. is arable, and most of that land was protected as an agricultural land reserve in 1976. Land in the reserve may be farmed, forested or left vacant, but can’t be used for development. It’s a policy that was groundbreaking in the 1970s, Mullinix said, but that needs updating to reflect the economic forces pushing farmers off land and out of the industry.
The agricultural land reserve protected farmland, but didn’t prevent it from becoming as valuable as neighbouring, non-agricultural land. This means that now, more than 40 years since the agricultural land reserve was created, agricultural land prices have climbed alongside property prices — prices most farmers can’t afford.
“The value of the land is not supported by its value for agriculture. It’s valued for other economic interests like golf courses, subdivisions, industrial land, speculative ownership. All these things represent competing economic interests, and they drive the price up,” Mullinix said.
In other words, most farmers in the Lower Mainland who, like Suda, didn’t inherit land, will never be able to own their farms.
In that context, land matches and leasing are the only options for many young farmers. Mullinix said this isn’t sustainable for farmers, and doesn’t secure B.C.’s long-term food security. However, it could be rectified by policy changes by the provincial government, Mullinix said.
Those changes, outlined in a 2018 white paper, include regulating farmland leases, restricting the ownership of farmland to farmers, and establishing land banks — publicly owned farmland rented or sold to farmers exclusively for farming.
They’re options the province acknowledges, but for the most part has yet to implement in policy.
“We don’t currently purchase farmland and put it in a land bank. We don’t have the capacity to do that,” Popham said. “But in the meantime, there’s a ton of new farmers that want to grow food in their communities and supporting them is part of the land-matching program.”
Still, that might not be enough for many new farmers trying to build their farms, including Suda. Without secure access to farmland, she’s not sure she’ll still be feeding British Columbians in 10 years.
“If we lost this land, we would have to start almost from zero, and whether at that point we would have the emotional and psychological capacity to start all over again, knowing there’s no security in the land,” she said.
“I think that would be the breaking point.”
Marc Fawcett-Atkinson/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer
Editor's Note: This article was updated at 6:35 pm on August 12, 2020, to correct the year the B.C. NDP government was elected to 2017 from 2016.